My first experience with Flower Drum Song was seeing the 1961 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein production when I was a kid. I must admit that, although not a fan of the R&H version, I am absolutely psyched to see the Tony-nominated 2001 version by David Henry Hwang. That’s the one that audiences will see on Park Square Theatre’s Proscenium Stage from January 20 to February 19.
With an almost wholly Asian American cast, the R&H version of Flower Drum Song was a light romantic comedy to profit from the popularity of such fare at the time. According to David Lewis in his book Flower Drum Songs: The Story of Two Musicals, “Mr. Hammerstein and his colleagues were evidently in no mood to write a musical drama or even to invest their comedic approach with dramatic counterpoint of the sort that Jud Fry had given Oklahoma! … [They] took the safest commercial route by following the eldest son’s search for love–the most popular theme at the time with Broadway audiences.”
In rewriting the script for Flower Drum Song, Hwang asked himself, “Could I aspire to write the book that Hammerstein might have written had he been Asian-American? Could I re-envision the musical in a way that would feel relevant and moving to more sophisticated, contemporary audiences?” (from “A New Musical by Rodgers and Hwang” by David Henry Hwang for The New York Times, October 13, 2002)
The result was a much more nuanced work that confronts the complexities of the immigrant experience, grappling with such issues as generational culture clashes, stereotyping, racism, assimilation and identity in a way that the R&H version could or would not do. In short, Hwang’s play has much more depth.
In Hwang’s script for Flower Drum Song, we are given, as he’d once put it, not “a tourist’s-eye view of Chinatown”; instead, Hwang wrote it “from the point of view of the inside looking out.” For me, an immigrant from Hong Kong who’d initially lived for several years in Los Angeles’ Chinatown, a tale about Americanization–what it means to come to the United States and become a part of it–being told from an Asian-American perspective proves to be much more relatable to my own story, which is/was definitely not a light romantic comedy.